Out, Out, Brief Candle

Lauren Brannon

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I worshipped a teacher, and I almost failed his class.

For straight-A Lauren in junior high, this was the most utterly unthinkable thing in the world. Now, for jaded, trying-to-keep-her-grades-decent college Lauren, it’s one of those “it figures” ironies of life. Either way, I doubt I’ve ever learned half as much from any one person in my life—I find myself continually discovering new things in remembered facts and phrases, though I have not spoken to him in years.

His name was Peter Douglass McClellan, and he taught World History to rowdy, vaguely interested seventh-grade Catholic school students. Upon our class’s first encounter with him, we thought him the oddest duck we’d ever laid eyes on. He stood a fairly portly six-foot-one; he had coke-bottle glasses, a nervous stutter, and silver-white hair through which he would often comb his fingers when he felt nervous—and I believe that on our first day of class he was almost as scared of us as we were of him. I wonder he didn’t go bald.

One of the quirkiest things about him was his wardrobe. Indeed, prior to knowing Mr. McClellan, I was entirely unaware of the existence of pastel plaid suits.

Class was of course boring and predictable at first: Ronald Sobczack smart-mouthed him, the three girls in the front row refused to pay attention, I doodled while Ana Steele read under her desk. God bless the man’s patience. God bless the man’s insanity. When we began to learn about Buddha, he began to lecture on the three main tenets of Buddhism:

Live fast
Die young and leave a good looking corpse
Never apologize

Blink blink. What? Yes, that’s what he said—what, we didn’t know this already? Shame on us—it would be on the test.

We sat up a little straighter. Ronald stopped being a jerk about the magenta tie. The chatter in the front row ceased. Ana put away her book. I still doodled, but I doodled pictures of Buddha.

Such tidbits grew increasingly more strange when he started teaching the Middle Ages. His lectures were peppered with random quotes which we supposed were meant to elicit laughter, but instead drew only confused looks. The light one day dawned on us when he required us as a class to watch Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Amidst the discourse of African and European swallows, he scattered historical facts that, in spite of ourselves, took permanent root in our brains.

We aced that test on the Middle Ages.

The man was both hysterical and brilliant—not to mention absolutely adored in all of his pink-shirted, baby-blue-sports-coated oddity. He was the sort of person who had a cat named Rover. He could not say the word “Medina” without singing it to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. He insisted that one of the greatest achievements of Indians was their development of special sauces.

Further, he served others most discreetly, so that his left hand did not know what his right hand was doing. Though he worked two jobs, he volunteered with the homeless every other day. Having very little of his own time, he nonetheless served our parish worthily. He had two daughters at our school whom he adored. They were, I think, a large reason he sought to teach at our school, when he could have been better paid elsewhere. Indeed, since his wife had divorced him and lived an hour away with both his daughters, school provided the only opportunity for him to see them every day.

I found this out myself, and told no one.

My two best friends, Brett Meslar and Stephen Lupsha, and I formed a knighted society dedicated to the service and protection of our “Lord Peter.” Since we three all had to ride home with teachers at the school—and thus often had to wait several hours before they were ready to go home—we would regularly accost Lord Peter with homage. He patiently graded papers or prepared lessons, glasses askew, yellow sports-coat draped over his chair, lavender tie loosened and asserted with a simple pin.

Upon seeing me one day before class with a beautiful leather-bound, gold-leafed volume (which I had chosen off my shelf merely because it was pretty), he inquired as to what I was reading. I responded that it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. From further questioning, he discovered that this was my third attempt at Shakespeare and—though I communicated it not in so many words—that I was rock-dumb and didn’t understand what I was reading. He suggested that I try reading his favorite play and that we would discuss it every so often.

And so it was that I met Macbeth.

I was enthralled. I was amazed. I still had no idea what I was reading.

Every day after class ended, I popped into Mr. McClellan’s room and cleaned the chalkboards while he did his teacherly things at his rumpled desk, and the discussion betwixt us twain would be naught but Macbeth. Even some days he would come in before history class and address us thus:

Mr. McClellan: Is that a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

Class: …

Mr. McClellan: Ten points to anyone who knows where that quote is from.

Class: …

Mr. McClellan: You don’t know, Lauren?

Lauren: Um … is it from chapter … three?

Mr. McClellan: Nnnnnno.

Lauren: Uh…

Mr. McClellan: [putting a hand to his ear, as if listening] Do you hear that? It’s the sound of grades falling.

On the rare day when we two did not discuss “that Scottish play” after school, he customarily greeted me in the hallways, in the lunch room, and in the sanctuary of the chapel with Shakespeare quotes. If I did not recognize them at once, I heard King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Finally I decided to play back with him. “Mr. McClellan!” said I one day, slightly mockingly, “finish this quote: ‘Out, out, brief candle’ –?”

He, of course, could recite the entire soliloquy. However, it became so familiar a refrain as to be our only greeting, and our farewell: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

The next year, our near-identical class again had him as our American history teacher; again we two would discuss, among other things, Shakespeare, and I would hurl at him my own acquired library of quotes. He either recognized these at once, or if not, he would run his fingers through his hair, stutteringly insisting that Shakespeare as such never existed but was, instead, the Earl of Oxford.

When I began to homeschool the following year, I no longer saw him daily, though when I spoke with my friends from school with whom I kept in touch, I would beg for stories of the now-legendary Lord Peter (whose knighthood society had grown to include even the rare new students) and listen to these tales with rapt attention as if to the words of Homer or the voices of Moses and the prophets.

The following year I no longer saw him at Mass anymore, which I presumed was because he frequented a different Mass time. It wasn’t until several months later, in August, that I learned he had fallen severely ill, after which it was a few weeks before I heard the words which did murder as they fell. Our Lord Peter had [contracted?] liver cancer… that deadly disease which doth mock the meat it feeds on. Our whimsical and portly Lord Peter became thinner, emaciated, until he was no more than a will o’ th’ wisp.

Entirely ignorant of how close he was to the edge of life, I desired to visit him on some indefinite date. Then, that September, the whole of America reeled from the terrorist attacks. Amid concern for family and friends proximate to the attacks, I entirely forgot my intention to visit Lord Peter.

Alas, one woe doth tread upon another’s heels, so quickly they come. Our Lord Peter slipped away quietly in the night one month later.

He was gone so quickly … without our farewell, without any farewell.

I attended his funeral. I saw his gravestone, too cold and monumental for one who was the embodiment of mirth and life. The day, irreverently azure, burned itself into my memory, unthinkable for the funeral of such a man—why should the Graces and Loves not mourn?

Though I find I have forgotten far too much, I still remember him, a god among men, to whom I attribute a great deal of my adult self and almost all of my intellectual life and curiosity. Whenever I hear the famous Macbeth soliloquy, I think of it as our regular greeting and farewell. How strange that such words, meant to be despairing of life, can signal such attachment to a life, can become the fondest of memories. Is life but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more? Is life indeed a tale, full of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing? What kind of life can it be which ends only in death? What is there for Hamlet, what is there for Romeo and for Cordelia and Lear?

There is Leontes’ Hermione. There is Hero.

“Tha’ art in heaven,” reads the gravestone of Lord Peter. If this be so, then rightly can one say to him totus pulchrus es, et macula non est in te. What cause, then, have we for mourning?

Our life is not our own, and we wait upon the mercy of the gods. But the same God who allows Desdemona to be smothered also raises up Hermione from the dust, brings the other Hero to her Claudio. Therefore men revere him, though none can see him, however wise their hearts. e can see him, however wise their hearts.


  1. Magda says

    That was just beautiful. Thank you for writing it. It is a rare breed of teacher who challenges and inspires, it’s a pity there aren’t more of them.